In the 1960s Norman Mailer was seemingly everywhere: blasting his literary peers, stabbing his wife at a party, making outrageous television and speaking appearances, marching on the Pentagon, running for mayor of New York. He was also, when he could find time after writing hallucinatory gems like An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam?, directing movies. After all, what better way for a self-described narcissist to make a spectacle of himself than to head a film crew and shoot the improvised chaos he and his friends might create?
Mailer’s electric writing, no matter how seemingly off-the-cuff, is built on precision, but his three late-60s efforts are freakshows of formless performance jazz: Wild 90 consists of Mailer and two others riffing as gangsters in a Brooklyn apartment — all that’s intelligible are Mailer’s drunken grunts, shouts, and, in one incredible moment, barks returned at a dog. Beyond the Law, also from 1968, is a barely more coherent cops-and-criminals showdown that only in snatches achieves true vitality. 1970s Maidstone, however, is an underground masterpiece. Mailer (who else?) plays a pornographer running for President and replaces the first two films’ primitivism with a rich, paranoid atmosphere of sex, celebrity, and the thin line separating acting and being, the last breached in the notorious fight scene between himself and Rip Torn. Then there’s 1987’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance, a Zoetrope-produced oddity that had Mailer adapting and directing his own novel for the screen. Glossy and star-studded (Ryan O’Neal, Isabella Rossellini), it might be the most awkward neo-noir ever made, and yet there’s something oddly captivating about this slightly off black comedy. Convention never could get its claws into Norman Mailer.
Starting July 22; at Anthology Film Archives and the Walter Reade Theater